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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Japanese Educational System: School Lunch

My friend Julien sent me the video below about school lunches in Japan and asked me if it was like this when I was there.

Have a look at the video from YouTube, and I'll comment afterwards.

First off - yes... the video above is quite similar to the everyday lunches I saw in Japan between 1990-1993, meaning things haven't changed all that much.

I taught at seven junior high schools in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, Japan, while this video shows an elementary school for kids in Grades 1-6. So there are differences in responsibility, not to mention food allocation.

Did kids bring tooth brushes and mugs from home to school? Not that I saw, but perhaps that is something that has changed.

Did kids bring in a 'lunch mat' to protect the desk from food dropping on it? No. I never saw that either. Is it a good idea? I'm unsure. Desktops were cleaned daily anyway by a student or students.

At the school... even though I lived in a rural city surrounded by rice fields and 7-11s (really), I never saw vegetables grown on school property for student/kitchen consumption. That doesn't mean it didn't happen, just that I never saw it at my schools - or even at the elementary schools I would visit during junior high school exam time.

As an assistant English teacher (AET), I would eat lunch every day with whatever class I happened to be teaching last - except at Wakakusa Junior High School where I ate every lunch with the special education class. I never got to work with them, but it was a treat for myself and hopefully them, to share lunch time.
When I left, I gifted them with my aquarium and fish.

The major difference I saw in the video from my experiences was that when it was lunch time, the desks were placed in a circle or square, with it open in the middle. This was done so everyone could see everyone else. I don't believe it was done so they could see me fumble my food with my chopsticks because after my first week of school in Japan I never dropped anything, becoming more of a chopstick champion than any of the Japanese teachers or students.

I practiced because I didn't ever want it to seem that something the Japanese could do a gaijin (foreigner) couldn't do as well. I was there to teach English pronunciation, to make English fun and to show that despite the language barriers, people can adapt and fit in with relative ease. It was to show that the Japanese need not believe in any self-righteous superiority over the rest of the world... that people are people. Internationalization, baby.

Another thing I found interesting, was that the class was served mashed potatoes. Never, and I mean never was I served a starch other than Japanese sticky rice and bread... and that bread was always an extra beside the main course of rice.

If I had curry, natto, soup or fried kontatsu (pork cutlet) or sushi - which we would build ourselves, rice was always served. I'm pretty sure that if I ever did eat mashed potatoes, it was at a restaurant with other gaijin. I certainly did eat potatoes, however, as fries (never at school), but as part of a soup or stew.

Rice is an integral part of the daily Japanese food. Like westerners eat bread, the Japanese eat rice... only more often. It might be with their breakfast, but was definitely a part of their lunch and their dinner at home.

Have you ever seen a pre-prepared bento box in Japan (not the ones mom makes), look at the rice section. White rice - maybe with sprinkles of something, but always with a bright red umeboshi (Japanese sour plum) placed right in the middle of the field. It's Japan's flag. See image directly below.

Obviously not all bento boxes are created this way, but it was far more common than not.

Next - the kids serving the meals: Hair coverings - yes. Masks - only if someone was sick, otherwise no. That is something that could have changed in the years I have been away, however. Coverall to protect the clothing - no way, Jose.

The rotating group of kids who were in charge of the lunch - they would indeed race down from their classroom at the end of Class 4, go to their cart and then carry the canisters of rice, soups, plates, chopsticks et al back up the stairs with them. It was heavy and I saw kids struggle mightily, but they always politely refused any and all offers of this gaijin's help. It wasn't MY job, it was THIERS. I can respect that. But I would offer when it looked like a group could use it.

In the classroom, the kids would dragged the food up from the kitchen would serve the teacher first. Some would serve me (the guest) first. Then their classmates and then lastly themselves.

A school lunch would typically have rice, a meat, soup, vegetables (could be part of the soup or stew), a bread roll when required and always a small carton of white homogenized milk. A desert might be served on occasion, but I think only when special holidays neared, so maybe some red bean paste in a bun, but again, desserts weren't the norm.

As you may know, soy is a huge part of Japanese cuisine, and is part of the deadly nut allergies many people around the world suffer from like my friend Rob... but dammit, I never saw such an allergy amongst the Japanese. Does it exist - probably, but it was never seen by myself in Japan.

Hell.. I drank MY milk, too even though I am lactose intolerant. It didn't hurt me as much as other, I'm sure, but part of the deal with Japanese school lunches, is that you eat everything on your plate. If you couldn't, you would delay and bring consternation down upon yourself or the entire class... I often saw girls sneaking portions of their food onto the plates of hungry boys, however, so there was no embarrassment, just kids looking out for one another.

Chopsticks - you can bring your own if you choose, but the vast majority simply used the plastic chopsticks provided to them by the school and left in a communal canister by the server kids. It's what I used ever day I was in school.

Before each meal was consumed, all of us would bow our heads (in a quick nod) and shout out "ただきます - itadakimasu" - which basically means "I am about to eat"... or "I receive this" (food)".

When we finish eating - and really everyone stops and is finished when it is time to end the eating of lunch, we bow our heads in a quite nod and say: "ごちそうさま でした - Gochisou sama deshita" which means "thanks for the delicious meal". The translations for each or inexact, but the meaning isn't. I probably pronounced the latter one incorrectly for three years.

Leftovers? Students, teachers and gaijin could have as many helpings as they could stuff into their mouth before time ran out, but it was first come first served, which was one reason why I became very adept with using chopsticks and shoveling food into my maw and down my gullet.

When lunch was over, we all handed our bowls and plates and chopsticks back to the serving crew... or sometimes the crew would purposely and reverently come over to my desk and their teacher's desk and remove it for us.

Milk cartons were flattened as in the video.

The kids would NOT wash the cartons in class because there were no sinks in the class. If they were cleaned, I would assume that it was done in the kitchen by a kid server or by the kitchen staff.

There was usually some leftovers in the food containers after lunch... and many was the time when the kitchen staff (all women, some mothers of the students in the school), would provide me with leftovers to take home for dinner. I might have asked about rice leftovers a few times, but that was only when it was a certain other leftover I was interested in.

A common leftover was natto.

Natto is essentially a type of soy bean that is wetted, wrapped in a wet cheesecloth and left to rot or ferment. When it is ready, natto beans are sticky, smelly and gooey with strings of goo sticking to everything. Depending on who you ask, it tastes terrible, smells even worse, and looks disgusting. It is, however, supposed to be packed with vitamins and protein and is supposed to be incredible good for you.

The north east part of Japan's main island will eat natto. The west - not so much. Tokyo - it's in the middle, so it was hit and miss.

Me? You can read my terrible secret - HERE.

While the kid servers are down in the kitchen taking care of things, the rest of the class pushes the desks to the sides and then again to the middle so that they can sweep the floors and wipe the desks. Others who don't have a specific classroom clean-up are to clean the school building and grounds.

That could mean (in 20 minutes or more), washing the hallways and stairs, doing gardening, cleaning out the washrooms... and while they are doing it, some form of Classical music would be broadcast over the school speaker system... something calm and relaxing.

I was never allowed to help the kids during clean-up. It was the student's duty. Again, I could respect that. I was actually reprimanded (not harshly) when I tried to become involved.

Students clean. Adults supervise. Gaijin... we can do whatever else we want. I walked around the school grounds and tried not to be a distraction... or rather tried to be as little a distraction as possible.

There is no school janitor, though there is, in the medium and large schools, a maintenance person (man) who helps fix things when they break, cuts lawns, does deeper gardening work, perhaps keeps the swimming pool in shape, keeps students in clean brushes, mops and brooms and rags... but he doesn't clean the school.

When the chimes rang, clean-up time was over and the classrooms were back to the original look, the kids were free to enjoy some 30 or 40 minutes of playtime.

If I was in the teacher's office at that time, I could have students fight over the right to give me a shoulder or neck massage. The fight would be through jan-ken-pon (rock-scissors-paper) - an other sport I soon became as adept as as one can become (it's luck), as all friendly discrepancies amongst Japanese equals are resolved in this matter.

I liked to play for penalties - a two finger (index and middle) smack on the open forearm. It hurts if you lose a couple in a row!

Other times, if asked during lunch, I might join a homeroom class in playing baseball or to talk (we would teach each other dirty words in our respective language - obviously only with the boys) or maybe play badminton (the girls... the boys didn't play for some reason, and seemed mesmerized that I, a man, would be playing this sexless sport).

So, Julien, my friend... my lunch times in Japan were quite similar to what was presented in the video above.

I would assume that school districts would have slight differences in how they perform their lunch hour, but generally speaking it has been and is the same.

Kids performing the serving and cleaning... these are all life-skills... sharing and caring for their fellows and their place of business... skills that are used in a daily basis in Japan.

Everyone has their job to do, but everything is done as a unit. Welcome to the machine. Welcome to Japan.

It's kind of cool, really. Students having responsibilities for more than just themselves.

Gochisou sama deshita,
Andrew Joseph

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